The trials and tribulations of the first openly gay bishop.
Dir. Macky Alston, 2012, 56 min, Viewed via Independent Lens website
Religion has, historically, had a spotty-to-dismal record when it comes to encouraging social progress. Institutions resist change, and when a faith becomes an institution, dogma becomes the rule. Rather than spirituality being used to probe questions that might never be answered, you instead get answers that may never be questioned. Institutions thrive on the status quo, and organized religion often fosters fear of the different.
This is certainly true of American Christianity. Its shining moment to date in this area was probably the civil rights movement of the 60’s (although even then there were many people on the wrong side using the Bible to justify their positions). One might dare to hope that the Church might end up on the right side of history with the modern civil rights movement, the one for non-heteronormative people, but there hasn’t been much luck there. There are some voices of progress coming from people of faith (including my own small, insignificant voice), and research shows that the majority of young Christians don’t have a problem with homosexuality, transgenderism, and the like, but the institutions still block society from moving forward. If this is to change, then more hearts and minds have to be opened within the Church.
One of the greatest voices for such a change comes from Gene Robinson. Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, is the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christianity. He’s had a long, happy relationship with his husband, Mark, for over twenty years, and enjoys time with his family, friends, and flock. He was elected and ordained as a bishop in 2003, amongst much controversy. In fact, the issue of homosexuality within the Anglican/Episcopal is so contentious that it may even threaten a schism in the near future. Robinson often has to wear a bulletproof vest at public functions, as he’s received many death threats. And he was not invited to the Lambeth Conferences, an assembly of Anglican bishops from all over the world that only takes place one every ten years.
Robinson’s character can be neatly summed up by the fact that he went to England anyway, and tried to talk to whomever he could. When he’s invited to speak at a small church (despite all local parishes being forbidden to do so), he tells the congregation to pray for a man who heckles him. This man fascinated me, because he spoke in a way that I thought only movie characters speak. He calls Robinson a heretic and repeatedly excoriates him to “Repent! Repent!” This is the face of homophobia in the Church, no matter what the denomination. It’s a cartoon.
There are comparatively more reasonable religious voices speaking against acceptance of LGBTQ people throughout the film (and a few even less reasonable ones, such as the Westboro Baptist Church), but the same underlying fear is evident in all of them. And to be clear: it’s not hatred, it’s fear. Many scoff when some Christians claim that they love gay people, even if they don’t want them to have the same rights as everyone else. This is not a contradiction, because most of them genuinely don’t hate gays. But they do fear them, no matter how much they try to deny that. It’s different, an Other, something threatening to shift what is known into unfamiliar territory. It’s a danger to the status quo, to dogma, and the Church as an institution isn’t built to handle even a change as small as embracing non-heteronormative people.
The movie follows Robinson as he makes his way through the national spotlight that has been cast on him thanks to his barrier-breaking status. Modern day scenes of his duties as bishop are intercut with reminiscences about his childhood, growth, and earlier marriage to a woman. He speaks of how he came to understand who and what he was, and to accept it, and the role God played in it. His unshakeable faith in God’s love motivates him in everything that he does now.
In an incident emblematic of the religious divide in America, he is invited to perform the kickoff invocation at President Obama’s inaugural weekend, while the man selected to perform the invocation for the main event is pastor Rick Warren, who has compared gay marriage to polygamy and incest. There’s still an uphill battle ahead. But with people like Gene Robinson in the conversation, the future looks a little brighter. He plans to retire next year, and the Church will be lesser for it. Hopefully there will be more people like him rushing in to fill the gap. There will need to be more, if ever the Church will change. Which it will. Institutions resist change, but they are not immune, and the future is inherently a good thing. It’s only a question of how quickly and gracefully the Church enters the future, and how many people it will lose as a result of its resistance in the meantime.